March 8, 2012
When I wrote about Leonard Heideman more than two years ago, the response was anti-climactic. This was the story of an important television producer with a deadly secret in his past, and a generation of repercussions from that secret, culminating in Heideman’s suicide. I’d spent three years, off and on, gathering data, watching Heideman-scripted TV episodes, and trying to convince reluctant friends and family members to share their memories of this talented but disturbed individual. Apart from the initial news accounts of Dolores Heideman’s death, almost none of what I wrote had been reported before. When I began, and knew little about Leonard Heideman except that he’d killed his wife and written for Murder, She Wrote, I thought about writing up the story as an acerbic only-in-Hollywood anecdote. Once I dug in, I realized that approach would have been in horribly bad taste, and I became obsessed with getting all the facts right and being fair to all the parties in this tragic tale.
Everyone who read the piece seemed to like it, but I guess I expected more. Comments from Hollywood veterans who knew or worked with Heideman (or, more likely, “Laurence Heath,” as he was later known). Some interest from the true crime community, perhaps, or from one of those semi-scuzzy cable magazine shows. Or, worse, angry reactions from some of the Heideman or Heath family members who declined to be interviewed and opposed my reporting of the story. In fact, apart from a one-sentence response from one of the sources I did quote in the piece, the only communication I received from the Heideman/Heath family was a recent e-mail from a distant relative and family historian, who confirmed several of the educated guesses that I couldn’t verify during my research. But when I pressed for more details, the family member never responded.
So for the most part, “Lenny the Knife” – as my research associate and I morbidly took to calling him – remained confined to this little corner of the internet. Maybe the Los Angeles Times editor who turned down my Murder, He Wrote pitch as “old news” was right.
All of this comes to mind because I noticed an obituary in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times for one of the minor figures in the Heideman saga. Maxwell Keith, one of the three-man team of high-powered lawyers who succeeded in clearing Heideman, the violent killer of his wife, with an insanity plea, died this week in Templeton, California, at the age of 87. Keith’s claim to fame was his doomed defense of two Manson acolytes, Leslie Van Houten and Tex Watson. The Times obit also mentions another famous Los Angeles murder case, that of Dr. R. Bernard Finch – a dentist who conspired with a pretty young mistress to kill his wife – in which Keith and his then partner, Grant Cooper, were the attorneys of record. The jury put Finch away for twelve years. Even though it was, locally, a high-profile case (and it would’ve broken Keith’s 0 for 3 record), I guess I’m not surprised that the Times didn’t mention Cooper and Keith’s successful defense of Heideman.
Keith is not quoted in my Heideman history for the simple reason that I couldn’t find him. Even though an odds-defying percentage of them were still alive when I was researching Heideman, I had terrible luck with the police and the lawyers who worked his case. Glen Kailey, one of the uniformed officers who arrested Heideman on the night of the killing was still living, but seemed to have fallen off the planet (or more likely into an elder care facility that defied public records searches). Both of the primary detectives on the case were alive, too, but when I tracked down O. D. de Ryk, the senior investigator, he told me that his former partner suffered from advanced dementia. As I questioned de Ryk, I sensed that he, too, suffered from memory loss; the few details he could remember about the Heideman matter were questionable. (Kailey and de Ryk both died in 2010.)
As for the attorneys, Grant Cooper was long dead. Godfrey Isaac – in his eighties but still a practicing lawyer at the time – declined to be interviewed minutes after receiving my request, and ignored my subsequent e-mails. (Although in his single curt reply, Isaac did mention a detail that allowed me to identify him amid the pseudonymous figures in Heideman’s memoir.)
As for Maxwell Keith, one reason I failed to track him down is that he was no longer licensed to practice law. The Times obit politely reports that Keith retired in 1995, but the State Bar of California’s website tells a different story. In December 1996, Keith resigned “with charges pending”; ten years before that, he had been disciplined by the Bar on another matter. The Bar association handily keeps track of its active members, but had no contact information for Keith; and all the phone numbers I found and tried led to dead ends. That was what reporting the Heideman story was like: every tangent seemed to lead down another rabbit hole of secrets and lies.
December 7, 2009
Today, over on the main Classic TV History website, I have published a feature story entitled Murder, He Wrote. If the names mentioned therein are unfamiliar, the story may read like an outline of a fictional crime show, an episode of Dragnet or Cold Case or, yes, even Murder, She Wrote. But the people in this story are real, and the events that it records actually happened.
More than three years have passed between the day when I first heard a rumor about the TV writer who killed his wife back in the sixties. I did not know the man’s name, or any other information about him, apart from a few details of the crime (some of which turned out to be inaccurate). But immediately I realized this story fell so squarely into my area of study that I had to report it. Many times during those three years, I thought I knew the whole story. And each time, just as I was about to close the file, I learned some new fact that added another tragic, touching, or bizarre layer to it. Finally, it’s time to turn the tale of Leonard Heideman (or, as he came to be better known, Laurence Heath) over to my readers.
True crime is a new area of reporting for me, and a sobering one. The violent act committed by Leonard Heideman in the early morning hours of February 23, 1963, continues to reverberate in the lives of his family and friends nearly fifty years later. Some of those family members and friends were courageous enough to discuss this difficult subject with me. I hope that I have done justice to them and to all the other parties involved in this story.
As always, I welcome readers to offer their reactions in the comments area below.